Although it is not a daily occurrence, you have or will have to attend a funeral at some point in your life. The atmosphere tends to be somber, and everyone is in a delicate state, especially the bereaved. In such times, it can be difficult to decide what to say or do without offending the family or guests present. Rather than letting the fear take over you, it is better to arm yourself with the knowledge of funeral etiquette. That way, you will be less likely to commit any mistakes.
Given the nature of death, it’s a dreaded topic that most people don’t like talking about, much less the proper funeral etiquette that surrounds it. Although funerals may differ depending on the familial, cultural, and religious customs, some general proper etiquettes apply in all situations. In this post, we will share a detailed etiquette guide with you, including what is expected of you as a guest or as the immediate family. We will also cover what you should or shouldn’t say to the bereaved family.
Funeral Etiquette for the Guests
What to Do: Before the Service
Read the funeral notice for clues.
Most of us find out about a funeral when we receive a formal invitation from the bereaved family. Given today’s technological world, you could receive it via email, or a social media invite like on Facebook. Sometimes you may read about it as a notice published in the newspaper.
Whichever the case, the invitation normally contains information concerning the funeral. Based on the information, if you read carefully, you may get clues that will help you know what is expected. That is in terms of dressing, what should be brought and what you’re expected to do.
For example, if the location of the funeral is at a denominational church, that’s a clue that you should dress modestly in dull colors. If the invitation state that it’s a potluck or a celebration of life ceremony, that’s an indication that it’s less formal. Some invitation or funeral notices, however, offer direct instruction on what is expected.
How should I dress?
Traditionally, dark colors like black and formal conservative dressing were preferred dress codes for a funeral. It was meant to match the mood and atmosphere of the occasion. Screaming bright colors or elaborate prints were considered inappropriate. To be safe, it would be advisable to follow this tradition to avoid drawing attention to you.
Times have however changed. The dress code is no longer expected to be as formal as before. In some funerals, however, depending on the family, as well as their cultural and religious customs, the dress code may differ from what is traditionally expected. It may also be the deceased final wish that everyone in attendance is dressed in a particular color. As such, to be safe, simply dress in honor of the deceased and the family. That way, you won’t be offending them.
How well do I know the deceased to attend?
When a family has lost a loved one, they normally need and to appreciate all the support they can get to help them through this difficult moment. Regardless of how well or little, you know the family; they would be honored that you took the time to come and show your support. Even if you hadn’t spoken to any of them in a long time before the funeral.
If you are simply accompanying a friend or are there as a support person for a family member, you will still be welcomed by the family. Your attendance will be seen as a show of support for the family and honor for the dead. Some funeral events, however, are private. If it’s specified that family and close friends only should be in attendance, then it’s best to respect that if you don’t fall within any of those categories. That is unless you’ve been personally invited by a family member.
What if I’m invited to a funeral, but can’t attend?
When someone you care about or know is bereaved, it’s natural to want to be there and offer your support where needed. Certain circumstances, however, prevent may prevent you from being able to do that. It could be a work commitment you can’t get out of, or maybe an emergency you need to take care of. Sometimes it could also be the distance between you because you’re in different countries or continents.
In such a case where you can’t attend the funeral, it’s proper and polite to let the family know. Ensure you inform them in a personal way. You could send a heartfelt text, conveying your regret and sympathy. You could also send a handwritten condolences card with flowers or a gift. If it’s possible to meet the family in person, it would be better to convey the message in person.
Should I bring flowers? A gift?
During a funeral, the bereaved family members are grieving. While there is nothing wrong with flowers offered to the family, it is advisable to do so after or before the funeral. That is why flowers are normally sent before the funeral and arranged beforehand. So, if you were to hand a family member a bouquet during the funeral, they would not know what to do with them, in their grieving state.
It is, however, not recommended or required that you bring a gift or card with you to the funeral. Unlike other occasions like birthdays and weddings, funerals are more somber events. Funeral flowers are sufficient enough gifts and a heartwarming gesture. It is, however, not bad if you’d like to offer a small gift or card. Like the flowers, drop the gift at their home before or after the funeral.
Should I bring my children?
Most people are skeptical about whether or not they should bring their children to a funeral. As a general rule, children who are under seven years old should not be brought to a funeral. They are considered too young to understand the meaning of the event and are more likely to disrupt at inopportune moments. This, however, depends on what the specific situation is.
If the deceased was a close relative that the children knew and identified with, then they should be encouraged to participate in the funeral. They need to grieve as well as pay their last respects. If you happen to have infants, it is advisable to sit close to the door or exit, that way you can easily leave when the child starts to make a fuss, to avoid disrupting the ceremony.
What to Do: Arriving at the Service
When should I arrive at the funeral?
Punctuality is key on every occasion. It is especially important at funerals. You wouldn’t want to disrupt the ceremony by walking in late. It would be considered a disrespect to the deceased and the family. The ideal time to arrive is 15 minutes earlier, that way, you have more than enough time. You can find a parking space, sign the guest book, greet any friends or acquaintances present and find your sit.
Should I sign the guest book?
The guest book is something the bereaved family may keep as a memento for years to come. It is a sign of the support they received during a difficult time. You should therefore ensure that you sign the book. Include your full names and relation to the deceased especially if the family doesn’t know you too well. Where it’s provided you could also leave a word of encouragement for the family.
Where should I sit at the funeral?
Usually, the first few rows at the front are reserved for the deceased’s immediate family members. Aside from those seats, you can sit anywhere you would like. A safe bet would be to sit at the back or at least in the middle. That way, you won’t risk sitting where you’re not meant to. Usually, however, the reserved seats are normally marked, so it should be easy to tell.
Should I talk to the family?
During the whole period of the funeral, both before and after, the family will constantly be surrounded by guests wanting to offer their condolences and support. There is nothing wrong with doing the same. Remember, however, to keep your conversations brief, do not monopolize the family. Remember they are grieving and also have many other guests to tend to. The best times to talk to the family are usually before the funeral and after the reception.
What to Do: During the Service
What is the proper funeral etiquette for cell phones?
This should go without saying, that cell phones are a no when it comes to funerals. To avoid risking any disruption it’s better to leave the phone in the car. If that is not possible then ensure the phone is switched off before the funeral service. At the very least if you must have it on, ensure that it is silent, not even the vibration should be activated.
Should I take photos or recordings?
Given the atmosphere of a funeral, it may not be taken kindly if you are seen taking photos or videos of the deceased or the funeral. Normally, there would be a professional hired to do that, or someone the family trusts can be assigned to take photos. While there is nothing wrong with capturing moments, you’d be drawing unnecessary attention to yourself, doing so at a funeral. You can, however, offer to help take photos if you know the family or at least seek permission from the family before taking the photos. Also, ensure you share whatever photos you do take with the family.
What if I do not share the beliefs practiced or highlighted in the funeral?
Not all funeral customs are the same. They differ based on religious culture as well as the beliefs of the family. More often than not, you may find yourself in a situation whereby your beliefs are not in alignment with the beliefs being practiced at the funeral. While you are not obligated to take part in the practice, it is not the place to protest, object or create a scene. For, example if a religious prayer is offered that’s outside our religion you can simply bow your head in respect without having to participate. If you are, however, not opposed to taking part, it is a great sign of respect when you embrace the customs.
When in Rome … Do as the Romans Do
Based on the saying, while at a funeral, it is not the place to express your individuality. Instead of standing out and drawing attention to yourself, you should follow the lead of the family and other guests in attendance. Keep in mind that your attendance was to honor the deceased and show respect while offering support to the family, which includes their customs and beliefs as well.
What to Do: After the Service
Should I go to the graveside service?
Normally there would be no problem with attending the graveside service where the body is lowered. All guests are usually welcome. Sometimes, the family might wish for the service to be private and limited only to the members of the family. In such a case, you should avoid going. Just be careful to follow the instructions given.
Should I attend the reception?
All guests are welcome at the reception. You’re not obligated to, but attending is another way of showing your respect and support to the family. It is also the best time to speak to them and offer your condolences. Again, if it’s been specified that it’s private then you shouldn’t attend.
Should I still go if I can only make it to the reception?
Certain circumstances cannot be avoided. You may find that you’re unable to attend the funeral but could make it in time for the reception. Ideally, between the two, you would rather attend the funeral and skip the reception. If you have no option, attending the reception is still acceptable. What matters to the family the most is the fact that you were able to attend.
What to Say: Say something.
Saying something to the family when you attend the funeral is important. At the very least, you should offer your condolences and sympathy. If the family doesn’t know you, you can introduce yourself and the relationship you had with the deceased. If you do know the family, then feel free to speak from the hurt. Express your shared pain and sincerest support.
Say the decedent’s name.
While it may seem counterintuitive to mention the name of the deceased in front of the grieving family, they appreciate it. Mentioning the name is seen as a reinforcement that the deceased was real and that the pain and sorrow the family is experiencing is justified. This is opposed to avoiding the name, which would seem like the deceased never existed.
Tell a story or memory.
Aside from the mention of the deceased’s name, the family also appreciates sharing stories of the deceased. It helps them heal by remembering him or her fondly. It is also comforting for them. Therefore, if you have any fond memories of or shared moments with the deceased, you should feel free to share them. They could be funny stories that reflect the positive attributes of the deceased.
A few phrases that are ok to use.
During the funeral, the grieving family members are in very delicate states. While it is important to say something to them, you need to know the right way of phrasing it. Some of the phrases you could use to convey your support and condolences are:
“I want you to know I am here for you no matter what.”
“Words can’t express how much I love you. I will miss you (Deceased’s name).”
“I miss (deceased’s name) too.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“(deceased’s name) was an amazing person, my condolences to you and the family.”
What NOT to say.
Just like there are acceptable phrases, there are certain phrases that should not be said to the grieving family. While it is okay to empathize, you need to remember that experiences are different even if the circumstances seem similar. For example, you losing a loved one doesn’t equate to them losing a loved one. Therefore, phrases to avoid are like:
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“It was God’s will.”
“I know how you feel.”
“I lost someone too.”
“Call me if you need anything.”
“It was their time to go.”
Other phrases to avoid are those that start with “At least…” which diminishes the emotion and grief of the family. Also, avoid sappy phrases about the deceased being an angel looking down on us.
Funeral Etiquette for Immediate Family
Although a lot of pressure and scrutiny befalls the guests, there are also certain expectations expected from the immediate family during the funeral. As an immediate family, here is a guide on what to do:
Dress up, not down.
Times are changing and dress codes at funerals are no longer as formal or strict as they used to be. Being a part of the immediate family, you are expected to honor the deceased and uphold the respect of the family by dressing modestly in black formal attire. Suits and ties are a suitable option, pantsuits and modern dresses as well.
I’m not sure I can talk to people. Can I leave early?
Losing someone is not easy. We all have our way of grieving and coming to terms with the loss. Some prefer to be among people for support. Others prefer to be alone. If you would like to be alone or don’t have the strength to interact with guests, you can leave earlier. Ensure you leave before the attendee, by having someone escort you to your transportation.
What do I say to people?
If you do choose to stick around, being around people may be comforting, but you may be at a loss as to what to say. This is acceptable, as most people understand that you may not be up to a conversation given the situation. The easiest thing to say, however, is ‘Thank you. You can thank the guest for coming and for their support.
What do I say to insensitive comments?
Guest also may be at a loss of what to say and end up saying or asking something insensitive or inappropriate. There are those who never even think before saying something. In such cases, you should not react; simply say “thank you.”
Some people may even insist on discussing how the deceased passed. You shouldn’t feel obliged to reply. You could simply say that you aren’t up to speaking about it at the moment. You could also prepare a simple explanation beforehand to share with them.
What if I cry or break down?
When experiencing loss, crying is simply an expression of your grief. You should feel free to cry whenever you feel overwhelmed and not pay heed to what others think or what they would say. For some privacy, you can find a private room or go outside away from everyone.
Ask for help where you need it and say no when you don’t.
As you grieve, it’s only natural that people would want to visit with gifts and food, offering their help and support. There is no shame in accepting their help if you need it. You could also have someone help you note down who came and what they brought. That way, you can thank them later and return any non-disposable item belonging to them. Similarly, if you don’t need help and simply want to be alone, you are not obligated to accept their help. You can simply thank them for the offer and request some time alone.
Write thank-you notes.
Once the funeral is done, it is important to send thank you notes, especially to those who were directly involved in the funeral. If you had someone keep tabs on who visited, brought gifts and other items, it would be easier to thank them as well. It is, however, understandable that you may not be able to send thank you notes to everyone. That is alright. People understand and know that you do appreciate them regardless.